▲ Mr. Kim and his wife. Photo by Elizabeth Holbrook
The words “hope maker” are written at the top of North Korean defector Kim Hyung-deok’s business card. With his persistency and determination, Kim’s astonishing story of escaping to South Korea would make even the toughest critic believe in a glimmer of hope. Now as the president of the Corea Peace & Prosperity Center, Kim channels his energy towards bringing peace to North Korea and believes a less forceful approach than what has been applied in the past should be used to enact change.
“North Koreans don’t have the opportunity to communicate with other foreign countries,” he says. “They dislike and have fears about foreigners and South Korea because they don’t have a chance to meet them. If we give them this chance, they will change.”
What was your life like in North Korea?
During my childhood, the economy and almost everything was good, but after 1985, the economy crashed and life in North Korea became very bad. Many people were hungry.
How did your first thoughts of defecting originate?
I was taught two different rules in North Korea: society’s rule and my family’s rule. At school I learned about North Korean policy, like communism, but in my house, my father taught me about freedom and to be against Kim Il-sung. He gave me his permission to leave, and was always pushing me to go. He would say, “You can leave this country any time.”
My father thought differently because he had worked outside of the country as a driver in Russia. He always said the North Korean economy would crash because the country didn’t have any creativity or freedom.
What finally pushed you to defect?
When I was 19, I was in the North Korean army. We were in charge of building the country’s infrastructure, such as bridges, stadiums, and roads. The country was so poor the army lacked basic construction supplies, and soldiers were ordered to steal materials from villages. Even though we were forced to steal supplies and were doing it for the country, if we were caught, we were punished.
I was caught stealing material and was sentenced to one year in prison. I thought to myself, “I will start a new life after jail.” I couldn’t see anymore hope in North Korea.
How were you able to leave?
I broke out of North Korean prison only to be arrested and re-imprisoned. While being transferred to another prison, I re-escaped and crossed the border between North Korea and China. I applied for political asylum to the South Korean embassy in Beijing but was rejected, so I fled to Vietnam and applied for asylum in Hanoi. Again I was denied, so I decided to make my way to Thailand through Laos. I was caught by Vietnamese border guards, but was able to break out of prison and returned to China, where I was caught in Shanghai and thrown into Chinese prison. They released me between the border of China and North Korea and told me not to make any problems. Eventually I smuggled myself into Hong Kong, which was occupied by Britain at the time, and was finally granted political asylum to South Korea in 1993.
What were your first thoughts of South Korea when you arrived?
I thought the infrastructure was good, better than North Korea and China at the time. Also, the color of people’s clothes and faces were very bright.
What was it like adjusting to life in Seoul?
For six months I learned about South Korean culture in an education system for North Korean defectors. It was a program set up to help me adjust but it also served as an investigation period. During this time the Korean, American, and Japanese CIA interviewed me before releasing me in South Korea freely.
What did you do with your new freedom?
I needed to earn money, so I worked as a ball boy at a golf course. I also worked other labor jobs like construction because I didn’t have any education in South Korea. After two years of this kind of work, I decided to go to university. I studied business administration at Yonsei University in Seoul.
What did you do upon graduation?
My first job out of university was working for the National Assembly. After that, I worked on the planning team of Daesung Group, went back to graduate school and majored in North Korean studies, researched for two years in New York, and started the Corea Peace and Prosperity Center in 2005.
Can you tell me a little bit about the center’s mission?
The center consists of members who are interested in Korean peace. North Korea is not a good country, I admit it, but we need to lead the country to the world. South Korea has that kind of mission.
South Korea was once a dictatorship, but changed in the process of trading and interacting with other countries. I think North Korea should have that chance with South Korea, the US or China. We need to help the country to go out and enjoy freedom. It’s not good to push them with food.
What does your job as president entail?
I go to seminars, teach, and give speeches. I speak my opinion on North Korea or relations between North Korea and China or South Korea.
I want to be a messenger between North Korea and South Korea. Many times, the South and the US use North Korea for their political purposes. In the process, there is a lot of false information. I want to clarify this false information through the center, so I’m continuously researching about North Korea. I want to share the true information with others.
Why did you move to Jeju?
Jeju is a very peaceful island and a good match for my center. Many North Korean defectors love Jeju and dream about the island because it’s very warm compared to their cold country. It’s kind of like people in the US who live in the main states and love to go to Florida in the winter.
What’s the best thing about living in Jeju?
My life in Seoul was very complex and busy. I didn’t have enough time to think about my life or the two Koreas’ futures. But in Jeju I have enough time to think about and research my main topics: two Koreas’ peace, Korean reunification, and the relationships between North Korea, South Korea, the US, and China. I think it’s the best place for me to do this, especially with a family.
What are some current projects you’re working on now?
A group of students at Yonsei University started a “reunification circle.” Half are North Korean defectors and half are South Koreans. The group will come down next week to experience Jeju’s nature. I will take care of them and guide them around Jeju.
Also, next month, in September, I’m planning a trip to China to research the economic relationship between China and North Korea.
What is your ultimate hope for North Korea?
Right now the US and South Korea are pushing North Korea and blocking economic activities. Because of this, many North Korean people are dying of hunger. This kind of policy is disappointing because it’s not working. I think reunification step by step is the best choice, not quickly or immediately, until both Koreas are economically bound.
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